UW News

September 14, 2021

Returning to the U District: Recovering from the pandemic with more changes ahead

city street with bus-only lane and tables sitting outside of restaurants

Northeast 43rd Street is now reserved for buses and bikes and features an outdoor dining plaza, leading to the U District link light rail station, opening Oct. 2. Chris Rule

The last 18 months have been hard for Mark Pinkaow and his wife Picha, owners of the University District restaurant Mark Thai Food Box. When COVID-19 largely shut down Seattle in March 2020, they changed the eatery’s format to takeout-only and barely scraped by. They opened, then closed again repeatedly over the next year due to the pandemic, property damage and construction outside their front door.

But now Pinkaow is optimistic — an emotion that’s been difficult to maintain these past 18 months. Mark Thai Food Box is kitty-corner from the U District link light rail station, opening Oct. 2.

“Light rail is going to bring a lot more traffic,” Pinkaow said. “People are going to come in and need something quick. They won’t have the time to sit down. Picha had the idea, ‘Maybe we should just keep it this way and have simple things for people to grab.’” They’re shifting their focus to their line of pre-packaged Thai meals, which customers can take home and heat up in the microwave.

Hardship, change and resilience — that’s been the experience of the U District community during the pandemic, just as it’s been the experience of us all. As students, faculty and staff return to campus in September, they will find that the University of Washington’s front door looks different — and it is on the precipice of even bigger changes to come.

Without the regular pedestrian traffic and hustle and bustle of students and office workers, the neighborhood has experienced an uptick in crime and graffiti, like the rest of Seattle. Shops and restaurants have been hurting without their regular customer base, and a number have closed — from older businesses like Orange King, which served students for 45 years, to newer ones like Floating Bridge Brewing, which occupied a spot near Interstate 5 for five years.

Restaurants, sidewalk and a lane of traffic reserved for tables. People sit at the tables.

Diners eat at a temporary outdoor dining installation on the Ave. Pamela Dore/University of Washington

Still, many have survived and some have even had more success this summer compared to other summers, with the outdoor seating options now available. Northeast 43rd Street, between 15th Avenue Northeast and the light rail station at Brooklyn Avenue Northeast, is now reserved for buses and bikes. The U District Partnership, a nonprofit that represents business, residential and community interests, installed tables along Northeast 43rd Street to create an outdoor dining plaza and worked with over 30 neighborhood restaurants to facilitate outdoor dining. A temporary outdoor dining installation also sits between Northeast 42nd and 43rd Streets on University Way Northeast, known as “the Ave,” thanks to the work of a volunteer group called the U District Advocates.

For many, experiences on the Ave and at businesses in the neighborhood are a central part of the UW experience.

“Even though I’ll probably have many other delicious meals in my life after graduating, they won’t be attached to the memory of being a 21-year-old trying to figure out life,” said Estey Chen, a UW senior who has written about food for The Daily, the UW’s student newspaper.

Chen notes that the U District has a diversity of regional Chinese cuisines you can’t find in other parts of the city. Over a dozen countries from around the world are represented in the cuisine of U District restaurants. A 2017 study also reported that 65% of U District businesses are women- or minority-owned, and 70% employ minorities, immigrants or both.

The U District Partnership is celebrating the neighborhood’s food scene as a way to draw people to the neighborhood. It will host a $3 food walk and festival when light rail opens. There is also talk of putting on a “boba fest” to showcase the variety of boba tea — the Taiwanese drink combining tea, milk and tapioca pearls. The neighborhood is home to over 20 boba shops.

“Our small businesses are such an integral part of the community in a way we didn’t realize until the pandemic hit,” said Maureen Ewing, the executive director of University Heights Center, a U District community center. “We started seeing major public health issues with the neighborhood when they shut down.”

The pandemic revealed how much support small businesses give the unhoused community, through food, sanitation and more, Ewing said. Across the country, unhoused youth tend to live near colleges. The neighborhood has a network of nonprofits serving the unhoused community — including University Heights Center, which hosts a hygiene station, a safe lot for people living in cars and more.

In all, a number of players, from the UW to small businesses to nonprofits, make up the ecosystem of the U District. It is a diverse neighborhood, with people from around the world and all walks of life. Many wonder how all the change will disrupt its character and delicate balance.

“I think we need to be really specific about what makes the U District so special, and how we can protect, support and lift up our community,” said Don Blakeney, executive director of the U District Partnership. “It’s going to be on us, as the U District community, to figure out what’s important as we continue to navigate economic recovery and major public and private investment in the years ahead.”

Alongside the change, neighborhood touchpoints are still there, from Big Time Brewery, Seattle’s oldest brewery, to the U District Farmers Market, the oldest farmers market in the city. Café Allegro, long recognized as a prototype for Starbucks, still occupies its alley location.

And the College Inn Pub is open.

In July 2020, the pub’s then-owners announced they were closing the business, which for 46 years had occupied the basement of the College Inn, the Tudor-style hotel built during the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in 1909. The announcement inspired an outcry on social media. That September, it was announced that the College Inn Pub had new owners, and in August 2021, the pub reopened, with behind-the-scenes updates but with the same look and atmosphere.

“The pub is a place where people want to come and have good conversation. They want to feel safe and respected. It’s a place where people come to make friends,” said Jen Gonyer-Donohue, one of the College Inn’s owners — using words that could describe the neighborhood as a whole.

Through it all, change pushes the U District forward, while continuity preserves its history and character.

“I’ve been seeing these changes in every neighborhood in the city, and it’s been hard for every neighborhood,” said Gonyer-Donohue, a lifelong Seattle resident. “But I also think there is opportunity, and I’m eager to get to know some of the other business owners in the U District and work out what those opportunities are.”

Tower from an old church stands on a construction site with cranes

In July 2021, the University Temple United Methodist Church, which stood at 15th Avenue Northeast and Northeast 43rd Street for nearly 100 years, was demolished to make way for two towers. Pamela Dore/University of Washington

Light rail will seamlessly connect the U District with the rest of the city and region, making it an attractive place to live, work and experience what the neighborhood has to offer — from its dining scene to concerts at the Neptune Theatre to museums on the UW campus.

Eight construction cranes now dot the U District skyline. In 2017, the Seattle City Council rezoned the neighborhood to allow buildings up to 320 feet tall, kicking off a building spree. The M Seattle, the first new high-rise, offers 24 stories of “luxury off-campus student housing” at Northeast 47th Street and Brooklyn Avenue Northeast. Two other high-rises are under construction to the south. The University Temple United Methodist Church, which stood at 15th Avenue Northeast and Northeast 43rd Street for nearly a century, has been demolished to make way for two more towers.

In five years, 22 new high-rises could be added to the neighborhood, along with 40 mid- and low-rises.

Development could bring over 7,000 new residents, 1 million square feet of office space and nearly 100,000 square feet of new ground-floor businesses north of Northeast 41st Street. Over 3 million square feet of new development is also planned south of it — in the UW’s West Campus, which will be known as Portage Bay Crossing.

As outlined in the UW’s Campus Master Plan, Portage Bay Crossing is envisioned as a dynamic urban community where students and researchers across multiple fields will partner with business, government, nonprofit and the Seattle community. It will complement the rest of the U District, with a mix of offices, retail and gathering spaces. UW partners from government, technology and other sectors will also be able to lease space.

“When you think of a classic college campus space, most people are thinking of the Quad. And the vision for Portage Bay Crossing is really much more like an urban neighborhood,” said Sally Clark, UW’s director of Regional & Community Relations.

A park on the water with people on stand-up paddleboards and in kayaks

Fritz Hedges Waterway Park on Portage Bay opened in October 2020. Pamela Dore/University of Washington

A new gathering space has already been added nearby. Fritz Hedges Waterway Park, a city park that opened in October 2020, sits on Portage Bay and provides a spot to relax by the water or enter the water on a hand-carried boat. In the Campus Master Plan’s long-term vision, the park would be an extension of a proposed 7.5-acre green space on campus.

The plan also includes the construction of 12 high-rises on Portage Bay Crossing, and the first is already in the design phase. Clean energy science and other innovations related to sustainability will be the focus at a site known as W27, on 15th Avenue Northeast and Northeast Pacific Street. A new 13-story building will house the Washington Clean Energy Test Beds, which develops new technologies in solar harvesting, energy storage and system integration; the Northwest Institute for Materials Physics, Chemistry and Technology, a joint research center of the UW and the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Labs; and UW partners.

“You’ll have this great melding of the academic uses, plus the other government and business interests that are all aligned — in the case of W27, with clean energy and technology that gives back rather than only consuming resources,” Clark said. “And that vision hopefully does attract people to occupy the ground floors or to occupy these non-UW spaces, people who really believe in and buy into that vision.”

With Portage Bay Crossing to the south and new development to the north and west, the U District is growing far beyond the neighborhood’s traditional core business area. And this change is happening as the neighborhood, like many in Seattle, still copes with the pandemic.

“We know it will take a while for some businesses and parts of the U District to recover from the pandemic,” Clark said. “The history of the U District, though, is one of character, tenacity and creativity. Students, professors and staff are coming back — and new neighbors, academic and others, are coming in. I’m optimistic about my favorite neighborhood.”